Watching The Avengers reminds us of all the good things we have lost from a much happier time in our past. The Avengers, which made its television début in 1961 and ran for eight years, was stylish, witty, wonderfully entertaining and very, very British.
John Steed, the character played so memorably by Macnee, drove a vintage 1926 Bentley. Immaculately attired, he wore a bowler hat and a Savile Row suit and always carried an umbrella.
Quaint country villages and stately homes, eccentric inventors and specialist proprietor owned shops featured regularly in the series.
This Britishness was a reason why it was so popular in countries across the world, including the US.
“We became terribly British,” said Brian Clemens, the Avengers scriptwriter and producer.
“A car is a car and not an automobile. A lift is a lift is a lift, and never an elevator. It is this Britishness that fits the fantasy world so appealing to the Americans.”
“The formula was to set the stories against a tongue-in-cheek panorama of the picture-postcard Britain illustrated in tourist brochures,” explains Dave Rogers, author of The Complete Avengers.
“Every aspect of British life was incorporated as it was promoted overseas: from atom stations, biochemical plants and modern industry on the other hand to fox-hunting, stately homes and the Olde English Inne on the other.”
It was The Avengers’ mix of the very Olde and the very new which made it such an exciting watch.
In one episode our heroes could be seen in a Scottish castle looking for the ghost of ‘Black Jamie’, in another they were trying to find out who had shot George/XR40, a brilliantly advanced computer at a government research establishment.
In one memorable episode ‘Death at Bargain Prices’, a seemingly old-fashioned London department store has secretly been converted into a giant ATOMIC bomb.
The Avengers was the product of a Britain that hadn’t lost its identity to globalization; a Britain that felt genuinely good about itself.
The 1960s was a very optimistic period where it seemed anything was possible. Living standards for working people were rising all the time.
There were jobs for everyone - and proper jobs, too. The economy worked in favour of the many, not just a tiny few, as it does today.
Back in the 1960s, supporting manufacturing industry was still considered important by UK governments who weren’t in hock to international finance capital. The economic policies were dirigiste.
In 1968 there was an ‘I’m Backing Britain’ campaign, endorsed by the Labour government.
The Labour government’s commitment to manufacturing was so strong that they introduced a ‘Selective Employment Tax’, a levy on service industries which then went to subsidize export industries.
An export boom occurred, and in 1969/70 Britain recorded a record balance of payments surplus of £550m.
Industrialists and British manufacturing companies feature in many Avengers episodes. It’s hard not to feel nostalgic when John Steed arrives at one of these companies and we are reminded of the ‘real’ economy we once had.
The governments of this pre-neoliberal era didn’t feel the need to shout their patriotism from the rooftops or show their ‘toughness’ by illegally invading other countries.
They simply made sure that the most important parts of the British economy stayed in British ownership, which often meant public ownership.
The 1960s was also a period of détente in the old Cold War and this is reflected in some of The Avengers plots.
Steed and his glamorous and very beautiful female assistants often pitted their wits against Soviet spies, but it never got too serious, and there were no pompous lectures about how ‘superior’ the Western way was.
“The “spy-fi” show (The Avengers) made the Cold War seem somewhat enjoyable and presented espionage as a glam, swinging 60s accessory”, wrote Chris Johnston in his Guardian obituary of Patrick Macnee.
In one episode, The Correct Way to Kill, the Avengers actually worked alongside Soviet agents. In Fog there is a plot to sabotage a disarmament conference by a man who has an armaments business.
Lots of people got killed in The Avengers, but it was not a gratuitously violent program.
John Steed, perfect gent that he was, never used a gun (Patrick Macnee, a World War Two veteran, insisted on it), but he usually gave villains a good thwack with his umbrella.
The fantasy, surreal side of The Avengers grew even stronger from series five onwards (the first colour series, shown in 1967), reflecting that we were now in the age of flower power and psychedelia.
One 1968 episode, with the wonderful title Look (Stop Me If You’ve Heard This One), But There Were These Two Fellows, involves a fiendish plan by a greedy businessman to gain control of a land and development company by getting a pair of unemployed clowns to murder his rivals.
In fact, greedy, megalomaniac businessmen who want to wipe out, one way or another, their competitors, feature quite a lot as villains in The Avengers, reflecting the different cultural values of the time.
Today we’re expected to tug our forelocks at billionaire monopolists, and not to question how such people acquired their vast wealth.
The Avengers was a ’conservative’ programme. But it was quite a socialist one, too, in its disdain for financial crooks.
It was also very progressive in the way that Steed’s female partners were treated as equals and were strong characters in their own right, particularly Cathy Gale and Emma Peel.
The Avengers ended its eight-year run in 1969, but in 1976 Patrick Macnee returned as John Steed in The New Avengers, with two new partners, Purdey and Gambit.
Again the emphasis was on its Britishness.
Overseas promotion photographs show Purdey, played by Joanna Lumley, posing with a bowler hat and an umbrella before a billboard which says ‘The New Avengers’ and ‘Made in Britain’ stamped on it no fewer than nine times.
The logo for the series, which also was featured on a board game, was a lion in red, white and blue.
Steed no longer drove a 1926 Bentley, but a Jaguar coupé, and then a yellow Rover and a Range Rover, all cars made in British state-owned factories.
However, less than two years after the last New Avengers episode was shown on British television in December 1977, Britain broke with the post-war economic model which had served the majority of people so well, and which had given us such a rich cultural life.
Neoliberalism became the dominant ideology.
Britain‘s industry, its infrastructure and its natural resources were put up for sale. Factories were closed down, or passed into foreign ownership.
In 1985, Harold Macmillan, the ‘One Nation’ Tory Prime Minister at the time when The Avengers was first shown on British television, made a speech in the House of Lords in which he likened the Thatcher government’s privatisation programme to selling the family silver, which of course was what it was.
The growing influence of media mogul Rupert Murdoch had a coarsening effect on our culture, and television in particular, experienced a dramatic ‘dumbing down’.
The impact of neoliberal globalisation made Britain a more boring country as it destroyed genuine diversity and the Britain showcased in The Avengers.
Just compare the variety of the British High Street in the 1960s with today, when identikit chain stores and global restaurant and coffee chains predominate.
Politics has become more boring, too, with anyone who stands apart from the ‘extreme centre’, be they George Galloway or Jeremy Corbyn on the left, or Nigel Farage on the right, subject to attacks from odious establishment gatekeepers who are determined to impose the new orthodoxy of ‘correct opinions’, especially when it comes to foreign policy and the demonisation of official enemies.
In one classic 1967 Avengers episode Never, Never, Say Die, John Steed and Emma Peel foil a plot to replace politicians with robots. Today, the British political elite is so robotic (“We must sanction Russia!, We must sanction Russia!”) that you wonder if Professor Stone’s plan actually succeeded.
British eccentricity, lauded in The Avengers, has all but disappeared. People have become scared of saying the ‘the wrong thing’, or of being ridiculed for stepping out of line.
The UK’s more aggressive foreign policy since the 1970s has made the country much less popular internationally.
In the Avengers era, people around the world liked what Britain stood for. But that goodwill has been lost by the adoption of disastrous ‘liberal interventionist’ foreign policies which have left the Middle East in turmoil and made British civilians terrorist targets.
John Steed was a much better Ambassador for Britain than Tony Blair or David Cameron.
They don’t make programmes like The Avengers in the neoliberal/neocon era. They tried a film remake in 1998 and it was truly awful.
Television series have become a lot darker since the 1970s, reflecting the insecurities of the age. There is no drama series on British television today that comes anywhere near to matching The Avengers for its style, wit and charm.
“It is an ironic truth that The Golden Age of anything is always ‘then’ and never ‘now’; and it is only with time and hindsight, and Dave Rogers, that the realisation eventually dawned that I had actually lived and participated in such an age,” wrote Brian Clemens in his 1988 foreword to The Complete Avengers.
The 1960s and 70s was a golden age for Britain (and indeed many other countries around the world, too), and just how good it was has only become apparent with the passing of time.
So let’s raise our glasses to Patrick Macnee and toast not only a great actor, but a great television program meand a great era.
And at the same time, let’s hope that the neoliberal/neocon era will soon be ending.