Back in 1961, ABC Television began broadcasting a spy-fi series called The Avengers, focusing on the adventures of Dr David Keel (Ian Hendry) and his mysterious government agent John Steed (Patrick Macnee). After the first series, the show’s emphasis moved to Steed and his many female assistants. In the late 1970s, the show was revived as The New Avengers, with Steed once more the focus.
Back to those original episodes, and like many other series all the videotapes were wiped, and all that remains is three stories on 16mm recordings. That situation remained unchanged until 2014…
When Big Finish announced they would be bringing back the original Avengers on audio, it was one of those ideas obvious once somebody else has thought of it. The stories were unfamiliar to many but even then the casting was fascinating and in six box sets (so far), Anthony Howell (Keel) and Julian Wadham (Steed) have impressed and entertained in equal measure. Fans quickly wondered what next? Would Big Finish carry on with later series? Would Cathy Gale, Emma Peel, Tara King or even Purdey and Gambit be coming to audio? Would Big Finish be allowed to write some original stories still set in that first Keel and Steed season?
Those questions remain unanswered. However, this year we have been treated to adaptations of a set of Steed and Mrs Peel comic strips that were first published in Diana magazine in 1966 – 67. This also gave us an answer – Olivia Poulet is Emma Peel. We caught up with writer Paul Morris to discuss his work on the series. First, he explained it was co-writer Simon Barnard who’d been the big fan of the show: “Simon has been a big fan as long as I’ve known him, and I think you can see that in almost everything he writes. I must admit, though, that I hadn’t seen The Avengers in any form before the BBC4 repeats of the Mrs Peel-era about ten years ago. After that I pretty much worked my way backwards, ending with the Big Finish adaptations of the Dr Keel episodes. I was always intrigued by how the series shifted so much in tone in such a relatively short time and going through those changes in reverse just made it even stranger. I recommend it!”
The first box sets were all adaptations of TV scripts; whereas Diana being a comic strip presents a different challenge. It turns out that wasn’t a problem: “Neither of us have worked with that comic strips before – unless you count Simon’s adaptation of the first Scarifyers story into a comic book, but that was going the other direction! To be honest, the fact that we were adapting a comic strip wasn’t all that important. We were simply using the storyline as the starting point for our script, so it wasn’t that different from being given a detailed brief by a script editor, or one of us enlarging on a sketchy outline from the other. What was helpful was that the illustrations were vivid enough to give us a sense of the stories’ atmosphere – always a good starting point.”
With only a short run of comic strips available, there will be only two sets of adaptations. This again raises the question of original stories. Paul is very keen on this idea (and not just the Mrs Peel era), as he explains: “We’d be very keen to work on any more Avengers that Big Finish can throw at us, whether it’s original stories or more adaptations, and whichever team they like. Everyone involved thought it was a crying shame that our new Steed and Mrs Peel might not get any outings beyond these eight Diana adaptations, though. It felt like we were just getting started. The New Avengers would be an interesting dynamic. Updating our style to give it a seventies feel could be fun!”
Julian Wadham has been playing Steed for Big Finish for some time, whereas Olivia Poulet is a more recent recruit. Paul was in the studio for the recording of one of their stories and noticed the dynamic between Wadham and Poulet: “One thing I was particularly impressed by was how seemingly effortless their interaction was. They slipped seamlessly into the rhythm of the dialogue, often nailing it on the first take. If there are no more Steed and Peel adventures to come, the end of that double-act might be the greatest loss of all.”
Let’s hope that’s not the case and fans continue to enjoy the pairing of Steed and Peel as they recreate the 1960s. Paul offers the following thoughts as to why they remain so popular: “The Avengers always existed slightly outside any single, easily definable genre. But I think there’s something timeless about the Steed and Peel-era in particular that means its appeal never fades. The Swinging Sixties trappings are just superficial; what gives it its heart is the fact that our two heroes enjoy their work, and that enjoyment is infectious.”
The second (and final) set is out now. You can read our review here.