Friday, August 10, 2007

Sex and Death on The Avengers

I’m in love with John Steed and Mrs. Emma Peel, but they’re fictional characters so nobody can get jealous.

When I say “fictional,” I really mean it. The '65-'67, ultra-mod period of “The Avengers” had no pretensions about realism, and the crime-fighting duo of Steed and Peel seemed totally aware of this. They traipsed blithely into the deadliest of intrigues as though they were going on vacation, knowing that neither of them would actually be killed and they’d both get equal time to kick butt at the end. When Emma was strapped to a conveyor belt on her way to a buzz-saw, she just couldn’t stop cracking jokes. When Steed barely avoided getting clobbered by yet an other assassin, his biggest concerns were for the position of his hat and the state of the champagne bottle. Even the strange, ritualized tags for the shows ("We're needed!") were a sly wink at the viewers.

This goes far beyond the dapper suaveness of a Bond or a Blaise. Steed and Peel do not live in a world where they can be hurt, let alone killed. They spend their entire lives stopping crime – seemingly for their own enjoyment – but next week’s famous criminals are completely unaware of their activities. Even the baddies tend to view crime as secondary to their personal obsessions: the satisfaction of a good joke, or an appropriately wacky revenge, or a ridiculously elaborate scheme.

So you can’t get tense when you watch The Avengers.

Just as importantly, the sexual dynamic between Steed and Peel is absolutely perfect. When they flirt with each other, they’re flirting for the same reason that they do anything else: because it’s a fun diversion and they enjoy each other’s company. There’s no sexual tension between the two of them and you CERTAINLY can’t imagine them – God forbid – actually having SEX. They're far too classy for that, even when Emma's in her bondage gear.

If you haven't watched it, give it a try. You'll be charmed if you have an ounce of silliness in your bones.

PS: There is an exception to every rule. The occasional Emma Peel-era episode is deadly serious -- "The House That Jack Built," "The Joker" -- and seeing Peel and Steed actually look concerned -- let alone terrified -- is a shock indeed.


Eric Little said...

Oh, my. I got addicted to these when they first appeared on ABC in the 1960s. And two of the shows you mention--"The House that Jack Built" and "The Joker"--are among my favorites, perhaps because they do introduce of frisson of jeopardy.

I also enjoyed "Escape in Time" with Patrick Bowles, but I see that he did four episodes--one with Cathy Gale, two with Emma Peel, and one with Tara King.

Of course, the DVDs of the shows sometimes reveal more than what could be originally gleaned from the smaller screens and lousier pictures of the era: that Patrick Macnee rarely did any of his own fighting, and that while Diana Rigg did more of her own stuntwork, sometimes she was doubled by a man.

"M. Appeal"--when Rigg started getting tricked out in the leather outfits (as Honor Blackman had done before her), I realized the British had a much more open attitude about the material's fetishistic appeal.

The Tara King episodes were not all that bad, but I couldn't abide the character of "Mother" they introduced.

Of course, for "The New Avengers," there's just one word--Purdey! (Who knew that Joanna Lumley would become such an accomplished comic actor? Who cared, when she could kick that high?))

Muffy St. Bernard said...

Diana Rigg's stunts are sort of amusing; she's hardly convincing! Even in the show's opening and closing credits it's hard to take her gunplay and judo-kicks seriously. During a fight, Miss Peel must first and foremost worry about the state of her hair, as she's always fiddling with it after a kick or a throw.

As for fetishy outfits, yeah, what is it with Britain and their bondage gear? Did they have creepy nannies like the one in "Something Nasty in the Nursery?" In fact, many British obsessions are cheerfully on display: scientific boffins, trains...

I've seen Lumley in the incredibly bizarre "Saphire and Steel" TV show, and there as well you can't believe she'd do physical comedy so well. I have yet to see "The New Avengers" but I'm afraid it's more camp than I can handle.

Eric Little said...

You haven't seen "Absolutely Fabulous"?