BOOK REVIEW: WITH UMBRELLA, SCOTCH AND CIGARETTES - AN UNAUTHORISED GUIDE TO THE AVENGERS SERIES 1 / AUTHORS: RICHARD MCGINLAY, ALAN HAYES / PUBLISHER: HIDDEN TIGER / RELEASE DATE: OUT NOW
Doctor Who fans don‘t know how lucky they are. Frustrating as it is that ninety-seven of the Time Lord’s 1960s episodes are still missing from the BBC Archive, fans still have access to the show’s entire canon thanks to the availability of top quality audio soundtracks, scripts and off-screen telesnaps. Fans of The Avengers - another perennially-popular cult favourite created in the early ‘60s - aren’t quite so fortunate. Only two episodes (and the first fifteen minutes of Hot Snow, the very first episode) from the first 26-episode series, screened erratically across the UK in 1961, still exist. Startlingly, only fifteen scripts from the remaining episodes have been located. Of the remaining nine episodes there is nothing; no scripts, no audios - just the odd promotional photograph. Yet despite this extraordinary dearth of reference material, Richard McGinlay and Alan Hayes have managed, against the odds, to put together a work which in part attempts to fill in the gaps, simultaneously putting considerable flesh on the previously bare-bones of the early days of one of the most iconic and ground-breaking TV series in UK history.
The Avengers is rarely screened on UK TV these days. This might well be because just one of the show’s fast-paced, vibrant, imaginative episodes would underline just how dreary, formulaic and uninspiring modern British drama has become. But interestingly, the early days of The Avengers weren’t really that far removed from many of the Police procedurals and identikit detective dramas which clutter up today’s schedules.
The Avengers was created in a hurry (the show was on screen eight weeks after it had been devised) as a replacement vehicle for rising star Ian Hendry whose Police Surgeon series was cancelled in December 1960 for some unspecified contractual reason. Debuting in January 1961, The Avengers saw Hendry playing Dr David Keel (often erroneously assumed to be the same character from the earlier series) teaming up with the mysterious, shadowy agent John Steed (Patrick Macnee) to avenge the death of Keel’s fiancée. The pair continued to work together across the series (although due to the show’s production schedule there would occasionally be episodes in which either Keel or Steed would work alone) in stories which dealt with rather more prosaic subject matter than the later, more extravagant and better-remembered episodes. These nascent Avengers would find themselves investigating kidnappings, murders, racketeering, insurance fraud (the excitement!) and the activities of numerous nefarious drugs syndicates. Only occasionally would storylines verge dangerously close to science fiction in episodes such as The Radioactive Man, The Yellow Needle and Deadly Air.
But it’s clearly the presence of Hendry and Macnee which gave these early shows their tougher, more hard-boiled veneer. Theirs was clearly a partnership based on mutual respect rather than trust and one senses that the relationship between the two was often edgy and unpredictable. Of course, with so many episodes missing it’s hard to be quite sure what these stories were really like but McGinlay and Hayes have made valiant attempts to piece together all the clues, correct popular misconceptions and present ‘best guess’ scenarios for many of these first-series stories lost forever.
With Umbrella… isn’t just an investigation into the series’ missing episodes, it’s also a production guide to the entire first series of The Avengers. McGinlay and Hayes’ research is breath-taking and their attention to detail astonishing. They painstakingly examine and present what’s known of each episode, supplementing it with fascinating biographies of the show’s major players, writers, directors and supporting performers whilst pointing out significant story strands and character developments which paved the way to the show finding its feet and its format in the following years.
It remains incredible, though, at a time when it appears that every significant television series in history has been dissected and analysed to within an inch of its life, that much remains unknown about the early episodes of The Avengers and that McGinlay and Hayes often have no choice but to admit that they can’t completely reconcile the fruits of their research with what may or may not have actually appeared on screen.
With Umbrella, Scotch and Cigarettes (also available is companion publication, The Strange Case of the Missing Episodes which looks in much more detail at the individual ‘lost story’ narratives) is hugely impressive in its own right, the occasional dryness of some of its content offset by its importance in chronicling the birth-pains and subsequent first faltering steps of one of the UK’s most celebrated TV classics. As a book it’s recommended both to Avengers fans and TV historians alike.