❉ The actress behind the legendary Tara King returns to The Avengers for more espionage!
“The thing that I really love is that The Avengers continues to have many, many, many followers. Things like these Big Finish plays keep it alive, and it fits really well into that mad world of The Avengers. ‘Mother’s Day’ is also so contemporary – there are all sorts of things that ring bells about what’s going on in the world today. I’m thrilled to be a part of it!”
Fittingly for the series’ 60th anniversary, The Avengers are back, thanks to Big Finish. Julian Wadham reprises his debonair take on Steed, while Emily Woodward recreates her spirited rendition of Miss Tara King, in The Avengers: The Comic Strip Adaptations Volume 5 – four more audio adaptations of TV Comic strips inspired by the famous Sixties show. Due in April 2021, ‘Mother’s Day’ is the anniversary must-have, as it co-stars none other than the original Tara King, Linda Thorson, as vengeful Russian grandmother Tatiana, masquerading as the lively Gertrude, the aunt of Mother (Christopher Benjamin), the head of Steed’s department.
When recording took place, We Are Cult sat in on the round-table interview with the always engaging Linda…
What was it like playing the villain instead of the heroine in The Avengers?
“It was very strange when I knew I was going to meet Emily Woodward today. We happen to have the same agent and she’s divine and adorable. But I did think, ‘I’m going to be meeting Tara King, and that’s going to be very strange!’
“I loved playing Tatiana, the Russian. She’s so over-the-top, she becomes so utterly indignant at the idea that her grandson would have to go to Mother’s school on a scholarship, because she’s not a peasant! She’s such an imperious and outrageous character, and Big Finish have made Gertrude, who was in Swaziland, a real Cassandra: she predicts catastrophe all the time, so she’s the complete opposite. I love the contrast.
“The thing that I really love is that The Avengers continues to have many, many, many followers. I am – sadly, at this point – the only living actor from the original series, and Jo Lumley is the only living actor from the second incarnation, The New Avengers. But things like these Big Finish plays keep it alive, and it fits really well into that mad world of The Avengers. ‘Mother’s Day’ is also so contemporary – there are all sorts of things that ring bells about what’s going on in the world today. I’m thrilled to be a part of it, and what a wonderful thing that this classic series has this new life with these wonderful actors, Julian Wadham and Emily Woodward.
“In a pandemic, I prefer to work on a ‘sound stage’, because all my friends who do lots of audio are working all the time! My preference has always been the stage and I’ve done a lot, including five Broadway shows. I’ve always felt the stage is the place where an actor is most in control, and I like that.”
As a young Canadian, were you intimidated by joining such a famous British TV show as The Avengers?
“Canada is a very Commonwealth kind of country, and I’d also been at RADA for two and a half years. When I arrived there, my teacher – the great Kate Fleming – said ‘Well, you sound like Donald Duck, so we need to rid of that Canadian accent with that nasal inflection.’ After two and half years at RADA, I had a very nice RP accent. That side of it was OK, but I didn’t even have a television – I was a starving student. So, ignorance was bliss; I didn’t know anything about The Avengers.
“I came into it and I was there was this wonderful man called Steed, I was going to be his sidekick and imagined Tara was in love with him. I had all these ideas and I must say – even though the scripts were there – the producer at the time let me run with my ideas. John Bryce, my original producer, was this wonderful man who let me make Tara King Miss Tara King. When I joined the job. I’d just turned 21 and Patrick was almost 42… Wouldn’t you be in love with Patrick Macnee as John Steed? We all would.
“I don’t think I was intimidated. I was much more intimidated today by coming into the studio today and playing Mother’s aunt!”
Is it true you thought of Tara’s name?
“It is absolutely true. I based the name on my two favourite things: my favourite movie, which is Gone With The Wind  – Tara was the name of Scarlett O’Hara’s cotton plantation – and ‘King’ because I am, I’m afraid, a bit of a monarchist, and always have been! I’m really keen on the Royal Family. I thought it was a wonderful name – ‘Miss Tara King’.
“The reason I wanted her to be Miss Tara King was because it seemed much more correct if she stayed the night at Steed’s flat – which was, of course, the question we could never address – if we knew she wasn’t married and so wasn’t committing adultery.”
How challenging was it taking over from Diana Rigg as the phenomenally popular Emma Peel?
“I think, and this might sound odd, that the biggest challenge was trying to keep the press away, because I was very, very nervous about the fact that there was a lot of speculation that no-one would ever be able to replace Diana Ring. I didn’t really understand why – although I’d seen her in the theatre before, and she’d been wonderful – but I just wanted a chance to show that I could do it: I filmed for one full year before my episodes went on television. I didn’t want to give interviews, so I got a reputation – ‘Does she think she’s Garbo?’ And the studio weren’t terribly thrilled either, but I thought, ‘If I say all these things and I’m a flop, it’ll be even worse if I’ve opened my mouth and said things about how excited I was.’ That was a very, very difficult thing to handle. The work was so intense; you were there all day, every day and we had air dates to meet, so there was very little time to worry about anything else. I was Tara, and I had to give myself to the show. The scripts were mostly great, and Patrick Macnee just held my hand, said ‘Follow me’, and I did.”
“How fortunate was I at that age to have starred in 33 one-hour films? I stayed on the set a lot, I learned about cameras, lenses, and lighting, and that took me a long way when I worked on other film productions, because I was au fait with movie making. And my series of The Avengers was the first time that Add-A-Vision was ever, ever used in any studio. That meant that as soon as you did a take, you could go over to a screen and have instant playback of what you’d just shot. And I have to say that Patrick Macnee taught me how to be in a TV series: when new people arrived on the show, you made them so comfortable. You’d go to the executive restaurant and have lunch, you’d make sure they were happy, you’d ask them about their lives and their careers, and you’d make them feel part of the family right away. Whenever I’ve subsequently guest starred on the hundreds of shows I’ve guest-starred on, I have so appreciated being treated like that.
“The best experience I’ve had recently was going on Schitts Creek [2015-2020], which is filmed in Toronto, and doing scenes with Catherine O’Hara. The producers and everyone in the cast – they were divine. They couldn’t believe their luck in getting me there, they asked me all sorts of questions, they were so hospitable, and I thought, ‘This is what I learned, and you guys are doing it.’ It was the best experience I’ve had on a show since The Avengers.”
What would you say was the ideal format for an Avengers story?
“You’ve got to have that team work we’ve seen in Steed and Tara, and they’ve got to have one another’s backs. The story’s got to have something completely outrageous that Steed and his partner find normal. The scripts have to have that other-worldly, unplaceable, but very important and highly skilled, highly concentrated elegance about them. The scripts have to have that acceptance of the utter madness of things, the impossibility… Mostly, the series – as I know it – was based in that fantastical thing of Steed and his partner going out to solve something, and there’s also this feeling that they have a wonderful time doing it.
“There also a great deal of emphasis on dialogue in The Avengers, the repartee of the back-and-forth between Steed and Tara – which is there in these wonderful new scripts. There’s adventure but there’s exposition, and when I was doing it we had these great actors who wanted to be in the show. All the best actors in England wanted to do an Avengers episode, so it was a real treat for me because I got to meet and work with them all. I think the stories work equally well just on audio, because people have loved the Big Finish version. I give the transition to sound-only ten out of ten.”
Do you think The Avengers could work today?
“No, I don’t see it working today at all. If you look at the modern James Bond, he does things that are just completely impossible. When I came in, we were at the end of the spy craze. We caught it, but because it was really happening – with Russia and Philby, Burgess and Maclean, for instance – and everyone was so aware of it, but once that went away, and once you had mobile phones, and supersonic jets… I think The Avengers was very much of its time. And I actually think it came to an end – when we went up in the rocket ship and I was vaguely dressed in a wedding gown, and it looked like Tara and Steed were going to be married and have a good honeymoon on the moon – at the right time.”
Did you know The Avengers was ending when you were working on your series?
“It wasn’t a 100% clear. We’d been given a very fine, backhanded compliment by our network in America, and of course a lot of money for the show came from there. We had to follow a lot of their thinking, and their rules and what they wanted. A show that you will know very well – Rowan & Martin’s Laugh-In [1967-1973] – played opposite us on one of the big three TV channels in the States. It was a water-cooler show, basically; if you didn’t watch the Laugh-In then you didn’t have anything to say, because everybody stood around and talked about last night’s episode. We were slotted in right next to them, and it really led to The Avengers’ demise, I would say. The last episode was called ‘Bizarre’, which ended with Patrick and I going up in a rocket, and as Steed and Tara went up, there was nothing about them coming back down; off they went into the universe, into the galaxies, and we didn’t know at that time if it would be the last show. I thought it was a wonderful ending.”
What memories do you have of the The Avengers 50th anniversary event at Chichester University?
“It was sad, in many ways, but Patrick was on the phone and Honor was there, looking so beautiful… My greatest memory has to be when one of my dearest friends, Paul O’Grady, said, ‘Just meet me down by the Thames, and we’ll go to Chichester together’. It was very early in the morning. I arrived where he told me to go, and it was a heliport! We got into a helicopter, which he’d hired, a cork came out of a bottle of champagne, and we flew down over the countryside and landed in a huge field, where all the fans ran out to meet us. That was a wonderful memory, and we also left the same way, flying to Paul’s beautiful home in Kent. Pretty Avengers-like, wouldn’t you say? Paul used to love to dress like John Steed; he was the first person who emulated the way Steed dressed.
“The other wonderful thing was the enthusiasm: this was a university, and the insight and in-depth knowledge of scripts, storylines and characters by the attendees… they knew everything. Their questions were astounding. Avengers fans seem to be rather intellectual; they take it very seriously. We wanted it to go on for two more days, we really did. We also raised a lot of money for charity.
“For the 60th anniversary… I’m not sure I can answer that off the top of my head, but I wish there would be a helicopter ride involved as well!”
There may not be a helicopter ride this time, but Linda is taking part in StudioCanal’s The Avengers at 60 virtual event on 29 January at 8pm. Click here for more information!
❉ Due for release in April 2021, ‘The Avengers: The Comic Strip Adaptations Volume 05: Steed & Tara King’ is now available for pre-order exclusively from the Big Finish website, as a collector’s edition four-disc box set (£29.99) or digital download (£24.99). Big Finish listeners can save money by purchasing volumes 3-5 together as a single bundle from as little as £70.
❉ Robert Fairclough is a film and TV journalist and blogger and a regular contributor to We Are Cult, ‘Doctor Who Magazine’ and ‘Infinity’. He is the author of books on the iconic TV series ‘The Prisoner’, and co-author (with Mike Kenwood) of definitive guides to the classic TV dramas ‘The Sweeney’ and ‘Callan’.