‘The New Avengers’ at 40: Revisiting Steed, Mike Gambit and Purdey

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It took a French champagne commercial to give us back The Avengers.

In 1975, producer Rudolf Roffi had Brian Clemens reunite Patrick Macnee and Linda Thorson for a Laurent Perrier campaign set in John Steed’s flat, in which the gentleman agent samples bubbly as Tara King fights off villains.

The French producer was surprised to learn the series had long ceased production and secured backing from IDTV Paris for a revival. With the rights leased from show owners EMI, Brian Clemens, Dennis Spooner and musician Laurie Johnson formed an independent company, Avengers (Film & TV) Enterprises Ltd, and set about production.

Linda Thorson was reputedly sounded out about returning, probably by Roffi as the Tara King episodes were particularly popular in France. However, with only Macnee finally agreeing to the new series, Clemens had a clean slate with which to completely update the show.

Retitled The New Avengers, Clemens decreed it would be extensively outdoor based with more action and hardware. To reflect this different flavour, he instructed Johnson to compose a punchier theme tune, though retaining the opening herald of the original. And in addition to the new girl, Charley, there would now be a second male partner to handle the rough stuff.

In keeping with Macnee’s maturing age, his character was to be a more supervisory figure known as Uncle Steed, with the team’s base of operations now at his new country cottage home. By commencement of filming, the cottage had grown into a mansion, the Uncle prefix dropped and Charley was now Purdey to avoid litigation with a certain brand of perfume.

The series debuted in 1976 with Joanna Lumley and Gareth Hunt as Purdey and Mike Gambit. Despite the many format changes, the show retained the classic mix of espionage and sci-fi with a standard of scripts that could have come straight from the Emma Peel years.

Highlights included Nazi monks keeping Hitler in suspended animation, a monster rat stalking the sewers, plus two welcome returns from the original series. The Cybernauts back for a third bout, and first Avenger Ian Hendry, though not in his celebrated role as David Keel.

It proved successful enough for a second season in 1977, but one besieged by problems. The series was now co financed by a Canadian network who insisted on episodes being set there, while the French also wanted some Gallic set. While this did not harm the stories concerned, it did compromise The Avengers’ signature Englishness.

It also became clear the best ideas had been invested in the first season, the storylines of the second not quite as consistent in texture. Many episodes noticeably opened with Steed reacting to news of an agent killed in action with “He was an old friend of mine.” Being friends with Steed must play havoc with insurance premiums.

But the second season still had its moments, including a cameo appearance by Emma Peel (via footage from the original series overdubbed by a Sue Lloyd) in what proved to be The Avengers’ only two part story. However increasing financial difficulties brought the series to a closure, with plans for a further six episodes cancelled.

Despite its curtailed run, The New Avengers succeeded in bringing the world of John Steed to a whole new generation and reinvigorated interest in the original series. It also made a star out of Joanna Lumley who then went onto Sapphire and Steel. A rich legacy indeed.

Written by Barry McCann.