PrintE-mail Written by Paul Mount


Long before Thor, Iron Man, Captain America and co. popularised the name all over the world courtesy of Joss Whedon’s 2012 superhero blockbuster, The Avengers was more closely associated with the exploits of bowler-hatted, umbrella-brandishing John Steed and his succession of high-kicking, often leather-clad female assistants in the iconic ‘60s British adventure series. The series had already enjoyed three popular, if slightly stagey, series on British television but the fourth - débuting in October 1965 - saw The Avengers enjoying a massive budget increase and moving into a single-camera, all-film production. With some subtle retooling applied to the overall tone and style of the series, a gradual drift towards the more fantastical, surreal and occasionally utterly absurd storylines would come to define the series for the rest of the decade.

But Series Four got off to a faltering start. Actress Elizabeth Shepherd had been cast as Steed’s sophisticated, no-nonsense new assistant Emma Peel (replacing Honor Blackman’s Cathy Gale) but with the first episode of the series – The Town of No Return - in the can and production ramping up on the second, it quickly became evident that Shepherd wasn’t quite cutting the mustard and the anticipated chemistry between her and co-star Patrick Macnee wasn’t as fiery as hoped. Shepherd was released from her contract, Diana Rigg was drafted in as the ‘new’ Emma Peel, and the first episode was remounted. A TV legend was born...

Fifty years later, it’s extraordinary how slick, contemporary, and stylish The Avengers became almost overnight. Many of the episodes in this twenty-six episode boxset stick to a familiar, potentially mundane, story template of espionage, murder, and blackmail, and yet Steed and Mrs Peel clearly also inhabit a slightly larger-than-life world of mad scientists, killer robots and alien plants. Series Four is studded with recognised tentpole Avengers classics, such as the debut appearance of the robotic Cybernauts with their lethal ‘whooshing’ death-chop and The Man-Eater of Surrey Green (which inspired a 1976 Doctor Who serial) –a remarkably matter-of-fact encounter with a hostile alien life-form in which Emma Peel, pondering the origins of the titular voracious vegetable killer, remarks that it probably came from, “Mars – or the Moon. Recent photographs have shown whole areas of vegetation.” Then there’s the unforgettable A Touch of Brimstone in which Mrs Peel dons ersatz dominatrix gear to infiltrate the notorious and libidinous Hellfire Club. Even the more traditional stories are shot through with the show’s new tongue-in-cheek aesthetic, which might today be interpreted as high camp. Fortunately the show looks so pinpoint sharp  – these new Blu-ray transfers are fantastically vibrant – that even the odd duff episode such as Silent Dust which fritters away its intriguing biological weapon blackmail plot doesn’t seem like a total waste of time.

The Avengers is a show that is very clearly a product of its time, a decade when TV was flexing its muscles and testing its boundaries, and yet it’s as richly rewarding a viewing experience now as it was back in the day when it was breaking all the rules and setting trends for a new type of British television. Escapist entertainment in its purest form, its episodic nature – no story arcs or subtle character development here – make it a delightful grab bag ideal for dipping in and out of. Steed and Mrs Peel are a warm and wonderful pairing, their partnership smoulderingly chaste and peppered with innuendo, and the show effortlessly crackles with wit and wacky invention. In its next series, it would move into colour and its storylines would become increasingly outlandish, but Series Four is where The Avengers starts to become the show it was always intended to be, but whose ambition was constantly outstripped by its restricted studio-bound production. Here the shackles are off and The Avengers really begins to fly. This is essential archive television immaculately presented.

Special features: Five commentaries, audio interview with Elizabeth Shepherd, Armchair Theatre episode ‘The Hothouse’ starring Diana Rigg, alternate end tags and titles, reconstructions, French and German opening credits, ITN newsreel footage, colourised test footage, galleries.

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