I was sad to learn yesterday of the death of Patrick Macnee. Back in the 1990s, when I was working full time as an illustrator, Channel 4 repeated all the surviving episodes of The Avengers. It was the first time I’d really seen them, and curling up to watch them at the end of a hard day’s drawing was a treat. If the image that ‘The Avengers’ conjures in your mind is of the Marvel superheroes of the same name, you really should check out this classic 1960s British spy show. Its camp wit is a bit like that of the Bond movies, but it has none of Bond’s thuggishness, revelling instead in a whimsical and very English sort of surrealism. Most episodes walk a fine line between comedy and drama, and some tip over into all-out spoof – like the one where Ronnie Barker appears as a cat-obsessed criminal mastermind (Steed and Mrs Peel track him by following the column of milk floats delivering fresh cream to his moggie-ridden mansion).
What struck me about these old programmes at the time was how much more modern they felt than ’90s shows like The X Files. Nearly twenty years later, I still think they have a playfulness and bravado that’s rare in contemporary TV. Most of it comes down to the chemistry between Patrick Macnee’s John Steed and Diana Rigg’s Emma Peel. They’re one of my favourite TV couples, mainly because they never quite seem to be a couple at all – it’s a fond friendship, not a romance. People who have only seen stills of Diana Rigg in her slinky catsuits could be forgiven for thinking that she’s just there to provide Man Appeal, but she’s far more than that; there’s never any hint that she’s less capable than Steed. (Admittedly, she gets captured and tied to something every other week, but she always has a sceptical expression which lets you know that she’s not impressed, and that she will make short shrift of her captors as soon as she struggles free.) In many ways, she’s the star of the show, and it’s to Patrick Macnee’s lasting credit that he recognises this, and just gives her the space to get on with it, while anchoring the whole proceedings with his own effortlessly charming performance.
What a gentleman.