Mrs Peel We’re Needed!
The sad passing of Patrick Macnee, the star of the legendary cult TV show The Avengers has no doubt left fans of the show in mourning. According to reports Patrick Macnee died peacefully on Thursday at his home in Rancho Mirage, California with his family by his bedside.
Patrick Macnee died at the age of 93 and was arguably most famous for his brilliant portrayal of the quintessential English eccentric secret agent John Steed in the ‘’Spy-Fi’’ television series in the 1960s. However, Macnee made over 150 appearances in television and film, which spanned across 5 decades and he also had a distinguished military career as a seaman in the Royal Navy during World War II.
Patrick Macnee became indelibly linked with the character John Steed as Macnee came across as a well-spoken, witty, and charming old school English gentlemen much like his alter ego in The Avengers. For fans of the series Macnee and John Steed were almost inseparable, and he acknowledged this in 1967 when he said in an interview that ‘’I know the part of Steed was created for me, and it was developed from my own background and personality, but I am still a long way from being typecast’’.
However, fact and fiction often get blurred in these scenarios, and need to be separated in order to get a clearer picture of Patrick Macnee’s life prior to his most famous role. Macnee was born in London in 1922 and was raised in Berkshire by a wealthy and somewhat aristocratic family. Despite this seemingly privileged lifestyle there lay family dysfunctionality, which came in the form of his eccentric father and lesbian mother. His father Daniel Macnee trained and bred horses, but his extra-curricular activities included heavy drinking and gambling, which saw him whittle away the family fortune. The young Macnee was then raised by his newly divorced mother Dorothea Mary and her lover. Macnee would later attend Summer Fields School in Oxford followed by a stint at Eton College, and it was at Eton that he developed a burgeoning taste for life in the performing arts.
It appeared that Macnee’s acting career took the traditional route of theatre, television and films. However, it seems that Macnee’s early foray into television did not run smoothly and he landed peripheral and unsatisfying roles in films such as Pygmalion in 1938. His role as an extra in this film set the immediate template for his acting career, which stagnated to some extent and was cut short altogether with the onset of World War II.
Macnee was enlisted into the Royal Navy in 1942 and the carnage that he witnessed in WWII, including the death of close friends prompted him to famously resist using a gun in The Avengers, despite protestations from the producers of the show. Once he completed his military service he won a scholarship to study at the Webber Douglas School of Dramatic Art. He subsequently resumed his acting career and appeared in minor roles in films such as The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp (1943), and as young Jacob Marley in A Christmas Carol (1951), and the musical comedy Les Girls (1957).
Perhaps it was these more minor roles, which led Macnee to try his acting luck in the United States and then Canada with the Old Vic Troupe. However Macnee landed only small and somewhat inconsequential roles in television and films. When Macnee returned to the UK he landed a role as a producer on the Winston Churchill themed documentary The Valiant Years in 1960 and within a year his acting career would be relaunched in spectacular fashion when he was cast as John Steed in The Avengers.
When Macnee was cast as Steed in The Avengers in 1961 he was in a supporting role as the show initially focused on Dr David Keel played by Ian Hendry. It would be fair to say that The Avengers in 1961 bared little resemblance to what the show eventually became famous and much loved for. As a viewing spectacle these early episodes of The Avengers were plodding, staid and devoid of any sense of real irony or subtle humour. It was the irony, innuendo and wit that characterised the series in the mid to late 1960s so splendidly. But what sent The Avengers into a whole new spear of popularity in 1962 was Macnee assuming the lead role after the departure of Ian Hendry, and pairing his alter ego Steed with a succession of assertive, independent and intelligent female assistants.
It was a stroke of genius on the part of the producers to team Steed up on an equal footing with a female, who more often than not came to his rescue when he was in trouble. The succession of actresses to assume the joint lead role included Honor Blackman, Dame Diana Rigg, and Linda Thorson. The Avengers became very popular when Steed was paired with Cathy Gale played by Blackman; however the show became a runaway success when Steed was paired with the delectable Mrs Emma Peel (Dame Diana Rigg) in 1965.
John Steed and Emma Peel became arguably one of the most identifiable and charismatic double acts ever seen on television. Both characters had chemistry between them that was magical and utterly irresistable to watch. The witty dialogue and innuendo, which was playful, light hearted and often flirtatious was part of the appeal for viewers as more often than not there was the suggestion of romance between the two characters
They were indeed a match made in television heaven as viewers were treated to fantastical story lines and surreal visuals that were stunningly brought to life when colour episodes were introduced in 1967. Macnee was also a style icon in his own right and his alter ego Steed was always impeccably dressed in Saville Row and Pierre Cardin designed 3-piece suits, beautifully tailored shirts and a cravat or tie. Part of the allure for fans of The Avengers was the stunning clothes worn by Steed and his female assistants. His immaculately tailored suits and his legendary bowler hats and umbrellas set this dandy far apart from everyone else in the sartorial stakes.
Macnee and Rigg became so famous in their roles that they must have been in danger of being type cast. It must have been almost impossible for viewers at the time to digest the news that Rigg was standing down from her role as Emma Peel in October 1967. Her final appearance in Forget-Me-Not coincided with the introduction of Steed’s latest sidekick Tara King played by Linda Thorson.
The tear jerking final episode sees Emma Peel say an emotional goodbye to Steed with the quip ‘’always keep your bowler hat on in times of stress’’, which added a comic and poignant finale to one of television’s greatest ever double acts. Emma then gets into her car with her bowler hatted husband Peter (who bears a remarkable resemblance to the on looking and bemused Steed) and glances back at Steed with a wry smile on her face, and it is this final knowing glance at Steed and then her husband, which confirms that her ideal man all along was someone who was the mirror image of Steed.
The Avengers would continue until 1969 and Linda Thorson as Tara King had the unenviable task of trying to fill the massive void left by Diana Rigg. The relationship between Steed and his new cohort was even more flirtatious, suggestive and innuendo laden than ever before, but sadly for Linda Thorson her character was a little subservient and often came across as vulnerable and silly, which undermined the character and was the antithesis of her predecessor. However, by 1969 the show ran into financial difficulty when it lost the backing from ABC in America. The producers reluctantly decided that The Avengers could not continue and the so called last ever episode Bizarre was screened in May 1969.
Macnee would eventually reprise his role as the much loved John Steed in The New Avengers in 1976, and this time he was assisted by Purdey (Joanna Lumley) and Mike Gambit (Gareth Hunt). Although the show was very popular with viewers it failed to recapture the magic and humour of the original series. Although there was chemistry between the three characters it rather felt like the show should never have been resurrected as The Avengers was a quintessentially 1960s show, and all the avant-garde ideas of the original Avengers was sadly never repeated in the latter carnation of the show, and the series came to an end in 1977 after a run of 26 episodes.
Macnee’s other significant acting roles included parts in Battlestar Galactica (1979), This is Spinal Tap (1984), A View to a Kill (1985) and Around the World in 80 Days (1989). However, Patrick Macnee will forever be remembered for his brilliant portrayal of the bowler hatted and umbrella wielding eccentric British secret agent John Steed, in one of the most influential television series ever made in the UK. The Avengers enduring popularity ultimately lay in the casting of a pair of fabulous characters in John Steed and Emma Peel. The brilliant portrayal of the eccentric, stylish, witty and lovable spy John Steed will keep the memory of Patrick Macnee alive in the hearts and minds of fans of The Avengers for many more years to come.