As a duo, they were simply incomparable: a nineteenth century gentleman and a twenty-first century woman who came together in the campy 1960s to fight Soviet spies, evil geniuses, and one time, even carnivorous plants, in order to save Britain from certain destruction. Before “The Avengers“ meant a God, a guy in armor, a man with rage issues, and a time-shifted Second World War hero, it meant John Steed and Emma Peel. And for me, Steed and Emma will always be the The Avengers.
Even though that title never made a whole lot of sense.
The Avengers was a British show that ran from 1961 to 1969, and in the beginning it was about a medical examiner and his mysterious spy compatriot seeking revenge against criminals. Or something. The series didn’t find its legs in the first year, and the lead actor –– the medical examiner –– left to do films. The producers therefore kept the spy, a chap called Steed played by Patrick Macnee, and decided to do something unheard of: they partnered him with a woman.
That woman was Honor Blackman, who everyone will eternally remember as ‘Pussy Galore‘ from Goldfinger. She got that memorably-named role because she played Steed’s partner, Cathy Gale –– as far as I know, the first female character ever on screen who could, without qualification, beat the merry hell out of any man she came across. She was presented as Steed’s equal, and as such, she set the television world on its head.
Then she left to cavort with Sean Connery at Fort Knox.
Scrambling to replace the revelation that was Cathy Gale, the producers decided Steed’s next partner needed more ‘man appeal’ –– or ‘M Appeal’, as it was recorded in the meeting. So they got Emma Peel (aha, see what they did there… Emm aPeel…) played by Diana Rigg… and the whole world changed again.
Emma Peel was not just a bruiser, though like Cathy Gale she could defeat any man hand-to-hand (with 60s TV martial arts, which look a bit silly now); she was also a world-renowned scientist –– clearly the smarter half of the partnership –– and her chemistry with Steed was electric. There was never any suggestion of Steed being her superior; equals from the outset, they saved each other from doom on a daily basis, and looked magnificent doing it.
The only question was –– and remains –– whether they were friends or lovers. Emma was a widow, Steed was a confirmed bachelor, and it was the swinging 60s, so it was quite possible they were together. But the writers kept their relationship terribly ambiguous, teasing viewers with chemistry that was too good, but never letting an answer materialize:
Eventually, Diana Rigg did leave The Avengers. The story goes that she was being paid less than one of the camera men –– the on-screen equality between Steed and Emma had reportedly been forced onto the program by Rigg and Macnee themselves, not the producers. Her departure left Steed with Tara King (‘Agent 69′, believe it or not), and the dyanmic with this rather different character just wasn’t the same. The series sunsetted a couple of years later.
But, of course, we’ll always have Steed and Emma.
Like, literally have them. Just about the first thing I bought with my first pay cheque from my first job was a DVD box set of all the Emma Peel episodes of The Avengers. This mega-set remains one of the most prized pieces of my movie/TV collection… so it’s probably no surprise that Steed and Emma have profoundly shaped the way I’ve told certain stories over the years.
My first exposure to The Avengers was back in 1999, when it was being re-run on a couple of Canadian TV networks. I caught up with it just as we were moving from Lethbridge, Alberta, to Waterloo, Ontario, and I instantly fell in love with Emma Peel. Most men do. There was no place for a character of her sort in the Equations, but when Defense Command came around, and the perfect character Karen McMaster was resuscitated (a separate, long story), there naturally could be no better role model.
Karen’s poise and ease thus began with Emma Peel’s, and I quickly determined that instead of letting her relationship with Ken Barron devolve into a cliched ‘will they or won’t they?’, it would be a much more interesting Avengers-style ‘are they or aren’t they?’ affair. Throughout the series, then, it was clear that Karen and Ken were either together already, or that they never would be… just as Steed and Emma were (or weren’t). That made Defense Command a lot of fun to write –– and was much more respectful to the intelligence of the characters.
Of course, little else about Defense Command resembled The Avengers –– being set in the 2230s precluded the adoption of any style cues. There was no way Karen could actually look like Emma Peel.
Then we got to Champions.
Now, let me say from the outset that I did not intend for Lady Alex Smith to take after the style of Emma Peel… but it may have worked out that way. I’m not sure whether it was a subconscious nod on my part, or just a reflection of my prevailing preferences when it comes to female fashion, but this happened:
Alex and Stephanie (indeed, most of the female characters of the Champions) would do Emma Peel proud, I think –– they’re smart enough, and tough enough, to save the world(s)… and they’re able to be stylish while doing it. The latter part is by no means essential, but if one can look good while beating the bad guys, one might as well.
Steed and Emma have been two of my favorite fictional characters for close to fifteen years, and clearly I owe them a lot. While I do very much enjoy Marvel’s hero team with the same name, these two Britons will eternally be The Avengers in my mind. Hopefully whatever influence they’ve had on my writing has been to the good, and any homages I’ve attempted have done them justice.
Whatever I have or haven’t managed to do, though, the world should never forget this most important phrase: “Mrs. Peel? We’re needed.” It’s not hard to understand why…