❉ 50 years ago today, we said ‘ta-ra’ to Mrs Peel and hello to Tara King. Michael Seely looks back on this historic handover.
“Tara was very different from Peel. We had returned to the warmth and compassion of Cathy Gale, but she kept the wit and charm of Emma Peel. Tara King is a more accessible character than Peel and she grew in confidence as her very long run of episodes demonstrate.”
25 September 2018 marks the fiftieth anniversary of one of television’s unique hand-overs. Emma Peel, surely the most iconic of sixties TV’s icons, was metaphorically handing over the keys – or rather instructions on how John Steed likes having his tea stirred – to Tara King. King is not quite as iconic, but she certainly has some very loyal fans, and made a particular splash in France. What was splashing is best left to the imagination.
The Avengers straddles the 1960s in a manner no other television programme did. A live and later videotaped production which originally peeked into the black and white underworld of crime in unusual places, it gradually evolved into a stylish, or perhaps stylised representation of how the rest of the world saw Great Britain. This Britain was crowded with eccentric millionaires, who were either villains or being used by villains, with their non-smiling working class henchmen doing the dirty work. The man fighting this tide of unusual crime was John Steed, the man most men I imagine wanted to be back then. Seemingly wealthy, seldom judgemental (so hooray no politics), he is charming, sophisticated, handsome, has impeccable taste, witty and displays grace under pressure always. A clever fighter, he would eventually put aside the gun in favour of an armour-plated bowler hat or his umbrella.
For a companion by his side, he quickly dispensed with men, and had a trio of women whose characters were quite radical for their time for they were his equal, or arguably, his superior. The first of these was Cathy Gale, played by Honor Blackman, who originally shared her duties with the with-it girl Venus Smith, a club singer, and unfortunately singing was all she could do. Mrs Gale was a polymath, able to bluff her way through any scientific establishment, although already armed with a great deal of skills and knowledge that made her an easier character to write for and put into practically any situation as a plant for Steed. Furthermore, she could defend herself, fight back and knock out the sadistic baddies or any thug trying to kill her. Poor old Venus could only sing a song or two and look confused.
When Cathy Gale left at the end of the videotaped era, her character was used as a template for Mrs Emma Peel. She too was a widowed, hyper-intelligent polymath and at ease with the higher reaches of society. She too could fight but soon Mrs Peel would put aside the leather fighting outfits which Cathy Gale made famous, and made the character her own.
Whereas Mrs Gale disapproved of Steed’s seemingly callous detachment over the consequences their actions took out on ordinary people, Mrs Peel seemingly endorsed his behaviour. I can only recall one time when she accused Steed of failing to save someone’s life, and that was her first filmed episode, The Murder Market. I could be wrong, but that never happened again. I always felt she was too remote at times. She always seemed quite unmoved by the latest succession of bodies they would inevitably encounter by this week’s serial killer. Perhaps she needed that detachment or become a gibbering lunatic.
The one time she lost control was when she found the corpse of a good friend and she let the villain have it in a rather striking scene in Murdersville. I am sure you could come up with a list of other examples, but this is how it has always struck me. In fact, as crime fighters go they were quite inefficient. Every time they would rush to the rescue – oh dear, too late… And surely if you have to meet someone who knows what is going on but only later that night and somewhere secluded, you just know they are going to be goners. Anyone would think this wasn’t real, and it was all some kind of upper class game for a bored or retired agent, wanting a chance to relive the glory days all over again. The episode Honey for the Prince provides a bureau to create this exact type of scenario. Ahh…..
It is well known that The Avengers, although made by ABC in England, was a big hit in America, thanks to its now all-film nature, and moved into colour at a time when its British viewers had barely made it into 625 lines. Viewers could now lust for Peel (and Steed), and hopefully she was a role model for girls who wanted to be things other than secretaries and housewives. Mind you, a bit of money would help too, but you can’t have everything, especially in a country where devaluation of the currency was only around the corner. Just don’t compare your wages to that of a bin man to make a point as Diana Rigg once did and was quickly misrepresented. If Patrick Macnee’s second autobiography The Inside Story is anything to go by, Rigg’s time on the series was not always smooth and easy as a Brian Clemens script.
The second and final Peel series pushed the series further into the realms of stylised adventure and comedy. There is no social commentary on display here, almost a complete rejection of the ‘real world’. There were enough dramas floating around now to do that, which seemed to bother socially politically sensitive commentators in the 1990s. This was a series you either got or switched off. And the powers that be did not like the way the direction their successful export was taking and changed production teams, bringing back a Cathy Gale producer who history records could not deliver the goods on time or on budget and had to be replaced with his predecessors. But he bequeathed them one gem – Tara King, played by Canadian ingenue Linda Thorson, fresh out of RADA.
Tara was very different from Peel. We had returned to the warmth and compassion of a Gale, but she kept the wit and charm of a Peel, and certainly kept the boys splashing merrily on high. She is on a lot of people’s favourite list. The age gap between King and Steed was greater, and the implication is they were probably lovers, although quite how this went down with HR is anyone’s guess. That was probably the least of HR’s problems. Mother, Steed’s inexplicable and newly invented boss, spent his budget on fancy offices in secret locations rather than ensuring his agents actually survived the week. The turnover in his department must have been enormous. However did they recruit? Presumably from the inbred upper classes who did not know what to do with their idiotic sires.
King is a more accessible character than Peel, which may have lessened her appeal to the males who wish to tame and dominate such a woman (See The Girl From Auntie and A Touch of Brimstone for how attempts were made to ‘tame’ Peel.) Tara grew in confidence as her very long run of episodes demonstrate. Some of the best episodes of The Avengers are from this period, and arguably some of the worst, although the only crime a ‘bad’ episode demonstrates is repetition, a thin plot, and a sense of deja vu. Which is practically the episode we are marking, The Forget Me Knot, which introduced Tara King and sent Diana Rigg to a Bond film. It is a matter of taste, but the secret of any series is no matter how poor an episode maybe, it is the regulars who keep you watching. That was the success of The Avengers. In the Gale era, episodes were recorded almost weekly and so some featured Steed more heavily than others, and the episodes where Gale centred highly were just as watchable because she was as interesting as Steed, perhaps more so. (You can tell she is my favourite.)
When Channel Four repeated selected episodes of the Peel/King eras, I quickly grew to love both Peel and King. Both had rocky beginnings. Diana Rigg was brought in as replacement one and a half episodes in, which is not as uncommon as all that. In fact, the first time she worked on a Brian Clemens script it was in a wonderful short-lived ITC series called The Sentimental Agent, and the lead actor was replaced half way through by a virtual clone, but without the charm and appeal. Quite shocking. Linda Thorson was the only Tara King, but she had to endure a chaotic baptism of fire of production problems and typical sexism over her appearance – a regime of slimming pills and hair dye issues.
By all accounts The Forget Me Knot was written in a hurry, but at least they bothered to give Emma Peel a send-off and a memorable farewell (her husband was not dead after-all, the shadow of Mrs Gale completely lifted). Tara King is introduced and the next episode is called Game, one of the more outstanding episodes of its time.
And Joanna Lumley’s Purdey was only a few more years away…
❉ Michael Seely’s biography of director Douglas Camfield was published by Miwk Publishing in May 2017. Click here to order. Michael Seely’s biography of Kit Pedler, ‘The Quest For Pedler’ (Miwk Publishing, 2014) can be purchased directly here.